Transportation mega-projects

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My favorite long drive in Vermont is from Charlotte to Bennington on Route 7. I know a lot of regular commuters loathe Route 7. You’re often stuck behind a slow poke whose left blinker taunts you for 10 miles; it can be icy and dangerous; the towns of Middlebury and Brandon have more curves than a belly dancer; and Rutland makes you stop and go more than the kids’ game, Red Light. Not to mention all the attention given to Route 7 by the local constabulary.

But its always beautiful to me, whether the sun’s out or just setting over the lake. The Green Mountains are vibrant. And those hair pins through the villages are quaint
reminders of Vermont’s indelible past.

Bennington, like many other Route 7 communities, has been trying to build a bypass for 30 years in an effort to preserve its downtown and invigorate its economy. Now, I’m one of the few (if there even is one other) who doesn’t believe that the western side of the state suffers substantially from not having an interstate highway. Can you really say that Brattleboro is a lot better off than Bennington? Or Bellows Falls more so than Manchester? White River Junction and St. Johnsbury are each fed by two interstates. Are they doing better than Rutland and Middlebury? I think not.

Still, the state must improve the transportation infrastructure of the Route 7 corridor, especially in Rutland and Bennington The highway’s inefficiencies plague economic development. The Bennington Bypass, when fully built, would almost ring the downtown. Most importantly, it would create a northern bypass from Route 9 that would take the heavy traffic around downtown and Old Bennington.

The first section of the bypass, a nearly $50 million project, is finally under construction. It would connect Route 7 with Route 9 west heading to New York. That’s great, but traffic streaming from the east would still plow through downtown. And there are fears that trucks taking the bypass will cut through neighborhoods to go east. Woe to any neighborhood that becomes a shortcut.

The second leg of the bypass is still on the drawing board. Moving it up the state’s pecking order of major construction projects probably won’t happen. It’s competing with the Circumferential Highway in Williston and the Missisquoi Bridge.

And those mega-projects are competing with all those roads and bridges we keep hearing about, rotting away beneath us. If that giant sucking sound of highway dollars is coming from Bennington, then legislators in Chittenden and Franklin counties will be furious, and vice versa.

And the versa, from Governor Douglas point of view, appears to be the Circ Highway. There’s a fear that IBM might pull up its stakes without it. And the governor could use more political support in the Burlington area, which he lost in the last election. For Bennington, that means the second leg of the bypass probably won’t happen before 2010, if then.

This is Timothy McQuiston

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business magazine.

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